Long-distance driving often feels like meditation. Sitting upright, remaining alert and relaxed. Watching how the road unfolds ahead, and unspools out behind me. Nowhere really to be, except exactly where my tires are, the road beneath them as I travel along. At 65 mph, right where I am so clearly does not last at all. And it’s easy to focus ahead and behind. The center line accelerating as it gets closer, a Doppler effect of white, vanishing beneath the front bumper. Easy to grow hypnotized by that, as well as the line trailing behind me. I remember as a child sitting with arms folded, head and chin resting on the rear seat back, the blur of what is right along side is just movement, and easier to see in contemplation of it as the past, People, places, memories, goodbyes are back there. What reason, really, is there for the driver to watch that?. Scanning the rearview mirror as I was taught, looking for what?— either a rapidly approaching car that will push me to the ditch, or a police car, siren going and lights flashing, moving to another emergency. Or perhaps after me, for some mistake I made, turned without a blinker on, or when they aimed their radar at me. So that place, there behind, is for worry and regret. As in life. And maybe sa few sweet memories or goodbyes. Perhaps home is always what is left behind there. Or is home what lies ahead, the anxiety of returning, for helloes and embraces of those I love? Or to a new home, greetings to those I’ve never met, worry there about what’s to come, mixed with excitement of what is to be. The only thing real is what is right beneath me.—taking care not to become too hypnotized by the road trailing behind, leaving no tracks on the smooth asphalt; or the road lying ahead.
Today, my friend Michael and I are in the car, heading to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to reenact a trip made as young men 49 years ago. On that first trip we were dropped off in the Canadian wilderness by train and paddled for a week, Michael, Rick, and I. Worries then about girlfriends left behind, missing them and perhaps more, missing the music we lived to hear each day, the friends, and beer. Worried about the road ahead, the border, where we’d hide our supply of pot for a week’s traveling in these lakes and streams. Today, old men, we carry no drugs, except the Advil metered out to last us for the 7 days of this trip. Heading up the interstate, then 30 miles down a dirt road to the outfitters and on into the wilderness, muddied by rains over the last month. Heavy rains as we drive today, following us all the way for 300 miles. Hopefully there will be a break once we set out from the outfitters with our canoe, equipment and food.
And then, days of paddling. Michael more comfortable and skilled at being in the stern and steering. My job to just paddle in the bow. My excitement to be here translates into continually increasing my pace, and Micheal me again to slow down. Then it occurs to me to tie the stroke to breath. I begin the stroke, paddle entering the water, with my out breath, when strength is greatest. After completing the stroke, I lift it out of the water and bring the paddle back to the front of the canoe, breathing in, a deep breath to begin again, and with the beginning of the out breath I pull the paddle along again. It works, and I am able to maintain a steady rhythm, even when the wind or rain comes, waves rise up, and it becomes more work. And my meditation practice is useful here too, not just tying into the breath, but remaining balanced and upright, head clear as thoughts flow by like the waves around us. Older now, as I say, we pace ourselves, not harsh and urgent paddling or hiking on portages. We’ve planned one hard day, and then we’ll rest at a campsite for as long as we want. Take side trips, and return to the outfitter’s with a leisurely day or two of paddling.
Second to the last day, It’s raining, windy, so we decide to make it a two-day trip back. Refreshed and rested from a 3 day layover, we’re ready for the hard paddling and portages through mud and over the Laurentian divide. Here too, best to just focus on what’s beneath my feet. Looking too far ahead at the rising trail, or the downhill slog on the other side, steals me away from this moment—this decision about where to set my foot, to avoid water, mud, a stumble or a broken ankle. What is behind or ahead is of no matter, all is funneled into this moment and this step on the trail. Rains have left the trail even muddier than on the way in, and so I am more careful about not ending up with my foot in mud up to my knee, nearly unable to get it out.
A day of this, and we’re only about two hours straight down Sawbill lake from the outfitters and the end of this journey. We camp one more night, then set out mid-morning, feeling there’s no rush since we don’t have to be in until 4:00. Break camp, divide up what goes back to the outfitters and what we’ll keep. We set off in light winds and slight drizzle. Halfway down the lake the winds pick up, rain increases. The canoe is low in the water, waves go from a foot high to 2 feet high, maybe more. We make sure to stay away from the center of the lake, where even if with life vests and a canoe to hang on to if we tipped, it’s not certain we’d last long enough in the cold water to make it. So we hew to the shore, looking for spots to safely put ashore if we need to.
At times, between the wind and waves, I paddle as hard as I can just to stay in one place, but not with the ease of a bird riding the wind. It’s hard work, and scary. Still timing paddling to breath, easy to do more quickly now since breath comes faster with exertion and worry. We’re just about to go round a point and hope we’ll see the end, the dock for the outfitters down the lake. Before we can reach it, trying to remain upright, calm, strong only in the moment right there, not looking at the past, or too hungry to reach the end, putting all into remaining afloat and safe right here. And suddenly, a turn that is nearly imperceptible, just enough that we’re no longer to headed directly into the wind and waves (and which Michael would blame himself for after, wrongly I’d add.) It’s just enough to catch the bow. That moment I’ve been dancing with, between what has passed behind, and what lies ahead, is suddenly cleaved like the 15 foot basalt boulder we passed earlier, cleanly split down the middle. There is no past or future, only the smooth hard surfaces of this moment I am thrust into, literally, as the water opens up and takes me in under its surface. I am freshly awakened bye the cold water, and find as I come up that I’m under the canoe. Again, no past or future, just this moment, as I go down again to try to come up around the canoe. And I do come up, already too far away to get back to the canoe, upside down now, and see Micheal hanging on to the canoe. He calls to me, as he couldn’t see me when I was under, which he hadn’t done. “I’m ok. You just swim to shore!” he shouts. So I do, covering the 30 yards or so to the rocky shore. We make it to dry land and find all our gear, including sleeping bags, are soaked. No way we’re putting back in with the chop that’s out there. We get to a clearing, out of our wet clothes, and put on what little we can find that’s still dry. Frightened, shivering, unsure of what to do next. But with the question of what is this present moment suddenly answered for once and for all in my heart and mind.
So…we waited out the storm and wind and made it safely back that evening with one last wild paddle. The next day I drove home, dropping Michael off on the way for a ride to Chicago and a reunion of college friends. Back home in the following days, that moment of capsizing was still like one of the giant boulders submerged in a stream, not moving, in my path every way I turned. I thought about it all, with second-guesses and recriminations, all the human ways of dealing with something like that. Had we been fools, should we have done something differently, were we really in the danger I felt we were? I remained drenched with the feeling of life’s uncertainty. It was a story to tell, an exciting one even, but I found I downplayed the danger. And realized in doing so I also minimized the fear I’d felt, and the wonder of the experience. How there’d been no room for thoughts, just the cold water, the immediacy of the moment, the need to find the surface and air. There was time right afterwards for thinking—formulating a plan, assigning blame, questioning ourselves, deciding whether to stay there and camp or try to get to the outfitters, worrying about hypothermia, as Michael had been in the water longer than I had and couldn’t seem to get warm.
But in reflection I returned again and again to the moment of seeing past and future, him and me, life and death, break like that stone and only the urgency of life remain in its center. Only response, action and awareness of the closeness always of death, and feeling that even when death comes it will simply be another step on this path. To be faced with…not urgency, not calm, but something beyond thought. Just meeting whatever is presented and what the moment required.
The night we were to come off the trail we’d made arrangements to stay at a cabin on Lake Superior, in a small resort that had not yet opened for the season. It had a woodturning sauna five feet from the lake, and after a week of mud, cold water and no showers we were looking forward to it. We arrived late, but the owners still fired up the sauna for us, and we headed down with great anticipation to use it. Opening the door, the entire sauna was filled with smoke. “Is it supposed to be like this?” Michael asked with alarm. No it was not, and we told the owner. Then we proceeded to bring her buckets of water as she put out the fire that had started in the wall next to the stove. A final reminder for the day from the universe, that life is uncertain and an emergency case moment to moment. There was to be no sauna that night. Just hot showers, and warm dry beds.
Lying there, settling into the blankets and thinking of the day’s adventure, I remembered something Katagiri Roshi had said years before in a talk. “We all want awakening to be something spectacular, with thunder, lightning and great excitement. But enlightenment is simpler, more like traveling all day on the road, and at the end of the day’s journey coming to a quiet clean motel room to rest in.” That was more than enough for me at the end of this day.